It's said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Joe Manganiello's cover may be that of a tall, muscular action star, but the book, in this case, might as well be the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. The actor, known for his roles in True Blood, Justice League, and the upcoming Archenemy, is also famously an avid Dungeons & Dragons player, and there's absolutely no conflict between the two personas.
"I understand that there are, you know, preconceived notions about [how] people can only be good at one thing or only be interested in one type of thing and they have to fall into some type of archetype," Manganiello tells SYFY WIRE. "But that's just not the way it is."
Of course, nobody should feel that they need to limit themselves or their interests to maintain an image — especially in this case, given D&D's increasing mainstream popularity, brought on in part because of high-profile fans like Manganiello. The actor even jokes that he certainly doesn't need to worry about what people might think ("I think I'm big enough that I don't have natural predators out there"). Manganiello's interest in what he calls "the nerd side" ought not be a surprise in and of itself; unexpected-yet-essential depths have proven key to his acting career and many of the characters he's played.
Manganiello, 43, was born in Pittsburg and grew up in the suburbs. A multi-sport varsity captain in high school and childhood DM of a tabletop Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game (his friends weren't into D&D yet), Manganiello soon made his way to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. His film debut after graduating was the perfect role for someone with his jock and geek credentials: Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's high school bully in Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man.
Flash, who is dating Mary Jane Watson at the start of the film and notably gets his butt casually whooped by a newly superpowered Peter, may not be a supervillain, but he is typically portrayed as a bully. Manganiello might disagree, though.
"Or is he a cool guy, a cool football player jock guy, and some nerd is now moving in on his girlfriend?" Manganiello says, somewhat wryly. "I know a lot of football players that were mad at Peter Parker. In fact, growing up, I wasn't a Spider-Man fan because of that, so there you go. I didn't see him as a bully."
Manganiello made frequent appearances on TV after Spider-Man, with recurring roles on shows like How I Met Your Mother and One Tree Hill, but his big breakout — the one he still gets recognized for in airports, depending on his hairstyle — was another genre role. In 2010, he made his debut on HBO's True Blood as the werewolf Alcide Herveaux.
Though Alcide was one of True Blood's main characters, a momentary love interest of protagonist Sookie Stackhouse, and an overall good guy rather than a villain, there was a monstrous pathos that Manganiello drew on for the role.
"I think [Alcide] tapped into the young boy at night, sitting alone in the living room, watching the old black and white Universal Monster movies," Manganiello says. "I always felt sympathy for the monsters."
While Alcide starts out as a (frequently shirtless) friend to Sookie before they eventually get together, he's got his own set of problems to keep himself busy when he's not saving his future fairy girlfriend. There's his vampire blood-addicted ex-girlfriend, an apathetic Alpha werewolf, and a horndog rival who's made off with his girl and kowtows to the megalomaniacal vampire king of Louisiana. All that drama understandably lends to some serious self-hatred on Alcide's part.
"What was at the heart of Alcide was this self-loathing monster who looked at being a werewolf as a curse, to the point where he didn't want to have kids and things like that," Manganiello explains. "So for me, it was very easy to feel sympathetic for that character or root for that character or want love for that character."
Perhaps the most high-profile (and undeniably "bad") villain that Manganiello has played, albeit one audiences haven't gotten to see in action much (at least, not yet), is Deathstroke, the DC supervillain who appeared in Justice League's post-credits scene. Manganiello will return to the character, although he can't say anything about what to expect from the Snyder Cut at this time. But his main focus while portraying Deathstroke is ensuring that he is, above all else, human.
"I don't want him to be superpowered because Batman isn't superpowered," Manganiello says of the villain, who is typically portrayed as a human with the very comic book-y ability to utilize 90 percent of his brain, rather than just 10 percent as a widely believed (yet totally false) urban legend says normal people have. Some comics have essentially used this as a license to give Deathstroke superpowers, but Manganiello wants his Deathstroke to be a reflection of the Dark Knight — a villain who uses his skills and resources toward his own agenda, rather than pursuing social good.
"The only difference is Batman uses different tactics than Deathstroke," Manganiello says. "Deathstroke's willing to torture, he's willing to kill. He's willing to go further than Batman would."
Manganiello's latest venture, Archenemy, which premieres in theaters and on VOD on Friday, Dec. 11, is also superhero fare — albeit of a very different sort than his Marvel or DC adventures. Archenemy follows Max Fist, a man we meet while he's living on the streets, drinking and doing drugs while telling anybody who will listen that he's actually a superhero from a different dimension. When he got stranded in this dimension while battling his archenemy, he found that he was disconnected from the source of his powers — the thing that makes him special.
"For me, as an actor, that's really what the movie's about. It's not about all the other stuff," Manganiello, who's also a producer on the film, says. "It's about this borderline schizophrenic meth addict who lives under a bridge who is somehow stuck in these glory days that may or may not have even existed."
"Joe's the best because he has so much physicality and also has a really deep reserve of dramatic acting chops," Archenemy director and writer Adam Egypt Mortimer says of his star. "He's such a comic book fan that we had a completely shared language of what are all the ideas in the universe and the multiverse that we can work with and how do we get to play with those to get to the drama of it."
"He's a big... I believe it's called 'Dungeons & Dragons' fan, and I didn't find that out until we were close to wrapping," says Skylan Brooks, who plays Hamster, an aspiring viral content creator who finds himself wrapped up in Max Fist's story. "He's in video games, he's in everything — stuff that I'm into too, and I'm like, ‘Wow, I didn't expect this guy to be into the video game scene.' I don't know if it's just because he's older or because of the beard or whatever, but it was definitely cool to see that side to him."
"That side" of Manganiello is, in many ways, a childhood dream come true.
"The job that I wanted as a kid [was] to work for TSR, which is the company that created Dungeons & Dragons," he recalls. "I wanted to write games. I wanted to write modules. I wanted to write adventures. So, I wound up finding an outlet for that in filmmaking and in producing and in acting."
And while Manganiello is a Hollywood actor first and foremost, he actually has gotten to work directly for Wizards of the Coast, the current stewards of the D&D brand. He's helped pen adventure modules, and he's created characters like Arkhan the Cruel who have become part of official D&D canon. (Arkhan's appeared in popular actual play D&D shows like Critical Role and Force Grey, as well as the video game Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms.)
"I think a lot of people say ‘Ah, you know, you're a fan!' And it's, like, ‘Well, I'm an employee,'" he says. "I get to work that job that I wanted as a kid, now, as an adult."
Of course, it's not all work. You better believe that Manganiello, in between his acting and his "official" duties for D&D, still finds time to play for fun. He's been running a game for his friends on Fridays, when he's home and not off filming, for three years now.
"They're getting close to the end," Manganiello says. "They're inching close, but, I mean, they — we might have another year left."
After that? Well, you can bet Manganiello will roll up a new character, in one medium or another.